School choice bill gets first favorable vote; testing requirement added

School choice bill gets first favorable vote; testing requirement added

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A bill to allow state funding of students in a variety of educational settings, including private schools and homeschools, was approved in the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday morning.

Supporters say the state should be funding students, not public education “bureaucracy.” Opponents say the bill will hurt public schools by taking away their funding.

At least in the Senate, the bill is on a fast track, being introduced Tuesday and now ready for a full vote by that chamber.

“I promise to work with all of you,” bill sponsor Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told committee members, asking for their support. “Let’s keep this conversation going because this is what’s most critical, in my opinion, to the state of Alabama.”

A fiscal note on the bill, prepared by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, said that when fully implemented in the 2024-2025 school year, the bill could send as much as $537 million from the Education Trust Fund to education savings accounts that parents could use to send their children to alternate schools. At least initially, the per student state allocation would be about $5,561, per the fiscal note. It would change as state funding changes.

Marsh on Wednesday argued his bill isn’t pulling money from education but rather “moves from one source of education to another.”

During a public hearing, several education groups disagreed and spoke against the bill, specifically on its impact on public school funding.

Arthur Watts, chief financial officer of Montgomery Public Schools, told the committee that eventually schools’ additional federal COVID-19 relief money will run out and gains in ETF revenue to level off.

“I’m deeply concerned about the number of teachers we may have to lose,” Watts said.

The three Democrats on the Senate Education Policy Committee agreed with the bill opponents.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said in her more than 20 years in the Senate, public education has never been adequately funded.

“You can’t tell me (public schools) can’t be turned around,” she said.

Supporters of the bill cite Alabama’s poor performance on several national rankings, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and say it’s time for parents to have more options for their children’s educations.

Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, noted Wednesday that Marsh’s bill does nothing to improve education at existing public schools.

Marsh has called the legislation “the mother of all school choice bills.” He amended it to require the same annual assessments for non-public schools students that public schools students take.

That was one of several amendments to Senate Bill 140 from State Superintendent Eric Mackey.

“In general, my biggest concerns are some lack of transparency and accountability in the flow of the funds,” Mackey told Alabama Daily News earlier this week.

He said Alabama has among the most lax homeschool regulations in the country. He said many parents do an excellent job educating their children.

“But there may be people out there who are not really teaching anything to children and we don’t have any way of knowing that,” he said.

“…If we include homeschool (in this bill), then we set up a mechanism so we at least have a registry of who those students are, what curriculum they are using — not choosing the curriculum for them, but a registry of what curriculum they’re using — and annual testing of homeschool students.

“… If they’re going to be getting over $5,000 per child in state funds, the state should at least have that information.”

Mackey also told Alabama Daily News that he thinks private schools receiving state funds should be accredited and meet some minimum standards. And there should be an annual student assessment “so we know where students are and how they’re progressing.”

He’d also like a requirement that participating schools accept children with special needs.

“If schools are taking state dollars, I don’t think they should be able to pick and choose who they accept,” he said.

Committee chairman Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, is a co-sponsor on the bill.

“It’s time we do something, it’s time we look at other options because what we’re doing isn’t working,” he said.

Other co-sponsors include Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, and Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road.

“Alabama ranks last in the nation in academic achievement for our children and it’ time we do something to correct that,” McClendon said.

Stutts said he favors the bill because “it simply gives parents a choice.”

“It’s not taking money out of ed, it’s putting money in parent’s hands to make the best choice for their children,” he said.

Committee member Sen. Roger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, noted the state’s teacher and substitute teacher shortage and said lawmakers need to work to solve the crisis, not play politics with it.

Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, is expected to file a companion bill in the House this week.